Japan: an unlikely new champion for coal?

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Gavin Sutcliffe, Head of Content, Global Energy Conferences & Gastech
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Japan is traditionally respected as one of the world’s most efficient and technologically-advanced societies, embracing an inclusive and responsible approach to economy, society and environment.

Except… Japan’s latest ‘Basic Energy Plan’ is undergoing major revision by the Ministry of Economy, Trade & Industry (METI), and is now expected to promote an increased use of coal-fired power generation as public resistance to nuclear power remains as robust as ever since 2011. As recently as last year, METI were committed to a seemingly balanced energy roadmap for Japan, with a fuel mix that included around 20% from nuclear, 26% from coal, 27% from LNG and 22-24% from renewable energy sources. If nuclear power is to remain offline, other fuels will have to fill the huge shortfall left if the energy-intensive society is to remain functional, and METI’s revised plans are likely to be made public in early 2017.

Ironically, this begrudging acknowledgement by the government that the public will not stomach perceived environmentally “risky” nuclear fuel has paved the way for coal’s resurgence with plans for many new coal-fired power plants to be built – with the likely result being Japan will miss its carbon obligations agreements signed during COP21 in Paris last year.

Around 40 new stations powered by this dirtiest of fuels are planned to open over the next decade or so, putting Japan’s emissions targets in serious jeopardy. METI plans to make the increased long-term investment in coal and ‘clean coal’ technology at the heart of plans to fill the large gap left by nuclear. Japan certainly appears isolated among its G7 peers as being the sole country still building unabated coal-fired power plants.

In May this year, a report by compiled by Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise and Management called Japan’s plans to invest billions in coal-fired generation, “flawed”, and the report’s main author, Ben Caldecott, remarked;

“Does Japan seriously think that there will still be coal-fired power stations in the system in the 2070s? Because that is what they are committing themselves to with the plans they have laid out.”

The report believes plans to take Japan’s energy policy in the opposite direction to other countries will ultimately impact the country negatively over the coming decades. Coal and ‘clean coal’ technology industries are powerful, influential businesses in Japan where lobbying keeps coal at the forefront of government policy, even as capital expenditure costs for renewable energies have fallen between 35-45% in the past decade.

With even the cleanest new-generation coal technology producing twice the carbon dioxide emissions as gas-fired generation, the heat is now on the Japanese government both internally and externally to reexamine its commitments to coal and fundamentally review its position as a leading member of the world’s most industrialised nations.

Coal will continue to challenge the position of natural gas – in particular, liquefied natural gas (LNG) – as Japan’s most flexible and economical fuel, and this is one of many key geo-strategic energy debates that will take place at the world’s largest natural gas & LNG event of 2017, the Gastech Conference & Exhibition, which arrives in Chiba, Tokyo, next April 4th to 7th. The Japanese government will be present and the event is being hosted by 10 of Japan’s most important energy stakeholders and investors, including:  Tokyo Gas, JERA, INPEX, Mitsubishi Corporation, Mitsui & Co, JAPEX, Sumitomo Corporation, JX Nippon, and Itochu. If you are interested in speaking at Gastech 2017, find out more about the conference topics for both commercial and technical streams.

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